I’ve always found one of the most significant divisions in photography to be that between images that depict and images that evoke. When looking through the beautiful box set of Casual Encounters I can’t help but feel what it is like to be in those images. I think Mike has done an incredible job at breaking through the documentation of an event and actually allowing us to experience the event, two very different ways of producing images.
When I first saw his work I purchased the first 5 booklets in Casual Encounters. I eventually got the box set that contains 10 stapled booklets. They can be purchased as single volumes or together. Each one is numbered and titled with the name of the person I believe to be the person he is meeting. When I asked him to send me a statement just to get a better idea this is what he sent: »I don’t have a statement for Casual Encounters other than the fact that I spent about three years photographing men I met on dating and sex websites. I often didn’t know anything about who I was meeting and would photograph pretty much anyone who was willing to be photographed.« That’s exactly what we see in Casual Encounters, men he was supposedly going to have sex with.
The simplicity of that statement is in line with the production of the books and the images themselves. The paper is simple, maybe even bad quality (or raw), and the images get lost in the darker areas, the highlights are blown out and the colors sometimes appear a little muted. I think it’s an on camera flash that he uses because most of these encounters happen in dark rooms, probably at night. The men photographed are not in flattering poses and the harsh lighting certainly doesn’t try to elevate them beyond who they are in that moment.
The entire box set talks about vulnerability and desire. The vulnerability of the subjects is expressed in every aspect of the image, and in some way that vulnerability becomes extremely tactile and poetic. We are seeing the openness of the subjects to be photographed in what can be a very intimate moment – given our culture, more so than if it were a straight couple meeting up. Most importantly, the photographer is showing us his life. I often hear the phrase that a photograph talks more about the photographer than the subject. In this case the photographs are the photographer.
The 10th booklet is titled Mike, and the cover has a white male, doggy-style, on a bed. Before you open the book you wonder if that’s him, Michael Max McLeod. Then the proof comes that it is him. The second to last image in the booklet is the same as the one on the cover but this time a dog is in the corner, as white as the bed sheets, starring directly into the camera.
What does desire look like when free to act far from social norms? I think this book shows a form of that desire, a desire that is necessary to its participants and that can only happen in some form of hiding. It calls to mind the act of cruising, or the French-Canadian film Stranger by the Lake. In both cases nature plays the role of protector and enabler. Within this body of work the home becomes what nature is in the previous examples.
I understand that this type of work may not be for everyone, but I find it to have accomplished something that not many have done.